Friday, November 07, 2014

Super Duper Alice Cooper

I finally caught up with Sam Dunn's Super Duper Alice Cooper, a project I was very much looking forward to.

I had a renewed romance with Coop some years back, enjoying his snarly clowning around in recent offerings like Dirty Diamonds and Brutal Planet.

As for Dunn, I've followed him ever since he glued together Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. Dunn's fresh-out-of-college shuck proved surprisingly effective in disarming his subjects, from drooling fans to long-in-the-tooth rock 'n' roll survivors. “I'm an anthropologist, looking into the anthropology of the Heavy Metal scene.” Sure, kid. Whatever you told the National Film Board to get your funding works for me, too.

Since then, Dunn's movies have traded on his unabashed joy for the genre and its artists, producing jolly, affirmational behind-the-scenes extravaganzas like Iron Maiden: Flight 666 and RUSH: Beyond The Lighted Stage. His enthusiasm is remarkably infectious: even the notoriously reticent Neal Peart chuckles and opens up to Dunn's camera. Super Duper offers Dunn, in conversation with Alice, while the cameras roll. Could this agreeable fanboy filmmaker entice new revelations and insights from the Coop's thin lips?

Short answer: beyond copping to a cocaine addiction in the '80s, no.

I should point out this is something of a departure for Dunn: it's a narrative doc, with no footage of Dunn-yacking-with-the-subject. But the film starts promisingly enough, with Vincent Furnier and the other original members of Alice Cooper narrating the sequence of the band's origins, while home movies and animated photos play out against a pastiche of vintage horror flicks, with particular emphasis on Dr. Jeckyl & Mr Hyde. Stylistically, Dunn is borrowing heavily from Julian Temple's The Filth & The Fury: A Sex Pistols Film — a commendable, if dangerous choice. Commendable because Temple's film is rousing entertainment; dangerous because comparisons quickly reveal the weaknesses in Dunn's movie.

Super Duper isn't the story of a band, it is the story of one man, Vincent Furnier, and how he survived a near half-century in showbiz. Consequently, though Dunn brings in a chorus of other voices to round out the narrative, the predominant voice is Furnier-Cooper's — he determines the framing of the narrative, and the others (including ex-bandmates) pretty much fall in line with it.
"And that's what really happened -- just ask anyone in this room."
Makes sense, really. It's the formula to success that manager Shep Gordon spotted and quckly honed to a razor's edge and weilded in his own self-interest: “Alice Cooper” The Persona is the meal-ticket; fence that off, and everything else becomes negotiable.

Now that would be an interesting angle to explore. But Alice Cooper is also Dunn's meal-ticket, so we get the expected narrative of addiction and recovery — or more accurately, the pernicious All-American Narrative Of Addiction And Recovery, which extolls the virtues of the Nuclear Family closing ranks behind The Rugged Individualist, cleaning him up and sending him back into the fray, to prove himself (and by extension them) Victorious Conqueror Of The Scene At Large. If Coop's version doesn't grab you, go watch Johnny Cash. Same story, different costumes.

I don't want to come down too hard on Dunn: these films take a heap of work, and the film I really want to watch is an almost impossible challenge, if only because Furnier and his handlers are too vigilant to allow it. But I'm hoping Dunn rediscovers some of his anthropology texts soon.

What were the social conditions that made Alice Cooper such a smash hit? Furnier says he owes his success to being the only one doing what he was doing when he was doing it — he saw a gap and filled it, basically. Even if we accept that claim at face value (and I don't) why was America ready to make this guy a superstar? When was America ready to make him a superstar?

Answer: 1973, with the landslide re-election of Richard Nixon coinciding with the release of Billion Dollar Babies, Alice Cooper's first album to go gold, and eventually platinum.
"Oh, I'm just warming up."
At the time, parents (like my own) saw clips of Alice Cooper's outrageous stage antics and thought this was the behaviour of a man in fact possessed by demons — a curious claim at a curious time. If an anthropologist were to do a little trawling through the counter-cultural penny-press of that era, focusing on the publications devoted to the occult and esoterica, he'd quickly discover that the long-haired kids saw clips of the president their parents had re-elected and believed this, too, was the behaviour of a man in fact possessed by demons. Now consider how the Babies show concluded with a roadie in a Nixon mask being beaten to an inch of his life by the band — and an increasingly frenzied audience — and you have a better grasp of the when behind the why.*

That's just one of many other more interesting stories swirling in the wake of this Addiction Recovery Success narrative, but you'll have to read books to find 'em — starting with What You Want Is In The Limo: On The Road With Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper & The Who In 1973, The Year The 60s Died & The Modern Rock Star Was Born by Michael Walker (A). Pair that up with Nixonland by Rick Perlstein (A) and you'll be clutching your blankets and calling for mommy faster than you can say, “Welcome to my nightmare.”

In the meantime you can take or leave Dunn's flick for what it is: a reverent tribute to a showbiz veteran, a nostalgic diversion.
No Muppets were harmed in the making of this production.
 *Another when question worth asking: when did Alice cease to be frightening?

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